Progressive Organizations Can't Stay Silent on Palestine

While many progressive leaders are horrified by the attacks on Gaza, a culture of fear keeps them from speaking up.

Saqib Bhatti and Anna Lefer Kuhn

A group of people with banners and Palestinian flags stand outside a building in London. In the center of the photo, someone holds a sign that says, "Surprised by how controversial it is to be against apartheid and genocide."A banner in the background reads, in part, "Stop arming Israel."
Protestors with Parents For Palestine gather outside Downing Street in London after an open letter, signed by parents calling for a ceasefire, was delivered to the Prime Minister on December 11. Photo by Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty Images

This article was originally published by Nonprofit Quarterly, on December 1, 2023, and is being republished with permission. 

During the last week of November, the world watched as a temporary truce took hold in Gaza, briefly pausing Israel’s bombing campaign which has killed more than 20,000 people. As a Muslim executive director of a national racial justice organization and a Jewish former foundation executive, we find that most organizational leaders and activists we talk to are horrified by the ongoing Israeli attacks on Gaza, the killing of Palestinian civilians, and the repression of Palestinian solidarity movements in the United States. But while they are personally supportive of calls for a permanent cease-fire, many are afraid to use their organizational influence and political capital to speak out on the issue.

Organizational leaders repeatedly point to three reasons for remaining silent. First, for many organizations, the Palestinian occupation is not their focus issue, and they do not feel like they have the standing or expertise to speak out about it. Secondly, organizations that have close working relationships with elected officials and their staff are nervous about jeopardizing those relationships by taking an opposing or controversial position. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, many organizational leaders are afraid that even if they acknowledge the horrors of the October 7 attacks on Israel, speaking out against the war on Gaza will put them at risk of being accused of antisemitism and possibly losing funding. 

If our organization’s mission includes human rights, justice, and equality, how can we sit idly by as the bombs rain down on Gaza?

Now, more than eight weeks after Hamas’s brutal attack on Israel and the aggressive bombardment of Gaza, it is critical for as many organizations as possible to fight for humanity and peace by demanding a permanent cease-fire. Polls show that an overwhelming majority of the American public support a cease-fire and that our elected officials who refuse to budge on the issue are misaligned with their constituents. Collective action and acts of civil resistance are helping shift the Overton window around the conflict. This public pressure is already forcing some elected officials to rethink their positions. The brief and wholly insufficient pause to the bombing over the Thanksgiving weekend was made possible only by the global outcry against the atrocities unfolding in Gaza.

Typically, the degree of violence and the true scope of genocide does not become widely known until after the fact. This is likely the first time that genocide has been live streamed on social media. We are witnessing the horrors as the Israeli government is perpetrating them. We cannot claim ignorance or look away, especially from the fundamental role that the United States plays in funding and supporting the Israeli military. As civic leaders in the United States, we have a moral responsibility to speak out. 

Preventing Genocide Should Not Be a Dangerous Mission

Foreign policy, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Middle East politics may not be central issues for some progressive organizations in the United States, but preventing genocide is an issue of universal importance. If our organization’s mission includes human rights, justice and equality, how can we sit idly by as the bombs rain down on Gaza? And certainly, civil society organizations are fundamental to monitoring and educating the public about how the U.S. government is spending our tax dollars. While we struggle to find money for schools, hospitals and roads in parts of the United States, our government is spending billions on weapons to supply Israel with the bombs it uses to destroy schools, hospitals and roads in Gaza. 

Those who engage in civil resistance and speak out against the occupation and ongoing genocide are right to worry about a backlash. There have been numerous reports in the past few weeks of journalists losing their jobs over their expressions of solidarity with Palestine. Law firms have revoked job offers from law students who publicly support Palestine. Columbia University quietly changed its events policies and then suspended campus advocacy groups Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace for violating the new policies following a student walkout in protest of the genocide in Gaza. 

Progressive organizations often invoke the threat of a funder backlash to justify remaining silent about Palestine.

This repression is not new. The organization Palestine Legal reports having responded to 1,707 suppression incidents between 2014 and 2020 targeting speech supportive of Palestinian rights.” Over the past decade, we have also seen efforts to criminalize the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and other protest movements as state legislatures pass laws to criminalize constitutionally protected protests and boycotts. Following the racial uprisings of 2020, these laws got new traction and far extended beyond attacks on BDS. This well-funded right-wing effort to criminalize BDS has garnered the support of policymakers in both red and blue states and some mainstream organizations by using calls of anti-Semitism to quash the opposition. 

While the risk of backlash is real, we also know there is protection in collectivity and making issues mainstream. We have seen the realm of acceptable conversation shift many times since October 7 as a result of well-organized collective action. 

Is Funder Backlash Real?

As nonprofits, our raison d’être is to accomplish our missions—not to exist in perpetuity while injustice prevails.

Progressive organizations often invoke the threat of funder backlash to justify remaining silent about Palestine. This helps to normalize the progressive except Palestine” position on the Left, where organizations and movements that stand for human rights and racial, gender and economic justice can remain silent on the Israeli government’s ongoing human rights abuses of the Palestinian people. Taking this position dehumanizes Palestinians especially, and Muslims and Arabs more broadly. We cannot claim to stand for human rights, social justice and dignity for all if we sit on our hands when it comes to the lives of Palestinians. As nonprofits, our raison d’être is to accomplish our missions — not to exist in perpetuity while injustice prevails.

And yet, it is also true that many organizations and institutions have lost funding as a result of anti-Palestinian repression. Earlier this month, Al Jazeera reported that Western donors are cutting Arab civil society groups off financially for criticizing Israel’s atrocities in Gaza.” Several major donors have cut off donations to Harvard University, Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania for not being forceful enough in condemning and suppressing support for Palestine on their campuses.

Both historically and at this moment, Palestinian, Arab and Muslim-led nonprofits have been the leading voices in support of Palestinian rights while also being some of the most overlooked organizations by traditional philanthropy. Researchers at the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis write, Muslim-led nonprofits lack funding from mainstream philanthropy,” and the Muslim nonprofit sector is funded mostly by Muslim-American donors.”

Nevertheless, there are some Muslim-led nonprofits funded in part by mainstream philanthropy who speak out to condemn the genocide in Gaza understanding that they are risking their funding. For example, as the Pakistani-American Muslim co-executive director of Action Center on Race and the Economy (ACRE), Saqib is taking a risk by coauthoring this article, although the risk ACRE faces is less than that of Palestinian-led organizations.

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While the threat of funder backlash is real, Palestinian-led organizations and organizations specifically focused on Palestine liberation face the greatest risk of being blacklisted by funders or facing other forms of retaliation. Other Arab- and Muslim-led organizations and organizations working on what are seen as Muslim issues” regularly think about the impacts of Palestinian solidarity on their funding. Other BIPOC-led organizations, like immigration rights group CASA in Maryland, have also lost funding as a result of their public support of Palestinians.

But for most white-led, foundation-funded nonprofits in the United States who are not focused on Palestine liberation, the fears of a funder backlash are overblown. Wealthy individuals, like the ones universities rely on for major donations, may retaliate against an organization for calling for a cease-fire or supporting Palestinian freedom, but decision-making at foundations is more nuanced. Foundation staff and board members typically believe in the work their grantees are doing. Program officers know the impact of their grantees and are usually among their biggest champions. Even if someone at a foundation disagrees with a grantee’s call for a cease-fire, they are unlikely to cut funding from an organization that is doing good work to advance the foundation’s priorities. 

Furthermore, we are also seeing foundations, individual donors and donor networks stepping up in meaningful ways in the fight for justice and peace. In the past month, the Solidaire Network, where Anna serves as a director on the board, and its sister 501(c)(4) Solidaire Action, jointly launched the Unity and Power Fund. Members of the network have committed to contribute $2.4 million to support anti-war efforts led by frontline Palestinian, Arab, Muslim and Jewish organizers in the United States and abroad who have called for a cease-fire and face backlash because of their stance. Given the significant generational shift in views on Israel and Palestine, there is also an opportunity to reach a new generation of donors who are increasingly concerned about the ongoing injustices against Palestinians and the war on Gaza.

Additionally, several networks of donors are engaged in donor education about the genocide and occupation by building on the work of a report by Rebecca Vilkomerson called Funding Freedom: Philanthropy and the Palestinian Freedom Movement, which challenges philanthropy’s support of Palestinian rights and calls on funders to better combat harmful practices plaguing foundations, such as the marginalizing and silencing of Palestinian voices and harmful investing practices. Solidaire Action, along with 112 institutional funders and 240 individual donors and philanthropy professionals, put out an open letter titled Funders for a Ceasefire Now” calling for an immediate cease-fire, humanitarian aid, an end to Israeli military funding and the return of all hostages. Local funders, global funders, feminist funders, Indigenous and Black-led funds and networks representing hundreds of organizations or individuals were among the undersigned.

As United Nations experts begin raising alarm about a genocide in Gaza, larger U.S. foundations are beginning to echo their concerns. Earlier this month, the Open Society Foundations called for a cease-fire in Gaza and sharply rebuked Israel’s military campaign there, stating: The deprivation of electricity, water, fuel and food to the population of the besieged Gaza Strip; the blocking of almost all humanitarian relief efforts; and a bombing campaign that has caused unprecedented casualties is likely to be judged as collective punishment. International humanitarian law must be respected.” 

Equality Means Everyone

Progressive organizations should also understand how far-right movements weaponize anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab bigotry, Islamophobia and antisemitism to push a Christian nationalist worldview. Attacks against Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims and Jews are not just isolated incidents perpetrated by racist individuals. They are motivated by a Christian nationalist ideology that seeks a white, Christian society without Muslims, Arabs or Jews. In fact, for many Christian nationalists, political support of Israel is rooted in an antisemitic desire to expel Jews from the United States, believing that Jews must be in Israel for the Second Coming” of Jesus. 

As progressive leaders, we need to condemn these forms of bigotry while ensuring we do not fall into the traps of unwittingly reinforcing anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab, anti-Muslim and antisemitic tropes. For example, many of the fears of a funder backlash against groups that support Palestine are based on stereotypes of a monolithic and vindictive Jewish community that is loyal to Israel, controls the flow of money and pulls the strings at progressive, BIPOC-led organizations. This trope serves to repress Palestinian solidarity while also reinforcing conspiracy theories that foster resentment toward Jews. Misdirected charges of antisemitism against organizers criticizing the Israeli government can also serve to perpetuate harmful, bigoted images of Palestinian solidarity movements being driven primarily by the hatred of Jews rather than respect for basic human rights for Palestinians and Jews alike. 

What should nonprofits and social justice organizations be doing? We should condemn the genocide in Gaza and call for an immediate, permanent cease-fire, even if this does not seem like a core organizational issue. We should invite funders to join the fight by asking them to sign on to the Funders for a Ceasefire Now” open letter and use their resources to fund and expand support for organizations calling for a permanent cease-fire. We should ask them to commit to long-term financial support for organizations facing retaliation from funders for speaking out — especially those that are led by Palestinians and working toward the long-term goal of Palestinian self-determination and liberation. We should share resources that help funders better support the movement for Palestinian liberation like the Funding Freedom report. We should engage them in difficult conversations and support them in their efforts to educate their leadership and boards about this issue. 

Now is the time for all nonprofits dedicated to social justice to take a stand for human rights. As leaders of U.S.-based organizations, we must take these critical steps to push both our sector and philanthropy to purposefully and forcefully respond to the urgent and devastating crisis in Gaza. 

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Fellow 2024 Izzy awardees include Trina Reynolds-Tyler and Sarah Conway for their joint investigative series “Missing In Chicago," and journalists Mohammed El-Kurd and Lynzy Billing. The Izzy judges also gave special recognition to Democracy Now! for coverage that documented the destruction wreaked in Gaza and raised Palestinian voices to public awareness.

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Saqib Bhatti is the Co-Executive Director of the Action Center on Race & The Economy.

Anna Lefer Kuhn is an independent consultant and former foundation executive. She serves on the board of the Solidaire Network.

Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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